On the Hunt for Army Recruits at an NRA-Sponsored Sporting Convention

by Braxton Taylor

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started four years ago, recruiting across the military services has been in crisis. Many recruiters lost access to schools that were shuttered. The military also has been increasingly the subject of political attacks – mainly from the right of the aisle condemning the services as “woke.” We’ll get into that in the episode.

My colleague, Steve Beynon – an Army veteran and Military.com’s Army reporter – and I wanted to see what it was like for recruiters on the ground floor. How do they recruit? Why were they at the Great American Outdoors show? Are the problems that gain so much traction in Washington the same ones that recruiters on the ground are experiencing?

 

We talked to people who approached the recruiting booth and asked them why they were interested in the Army. Some of the answers were pretty par for the course, and others were a bit surprising.

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Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Steve Beynon, Seller, Son, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Sen. Tom Cotton, Terri, Sgt. First Class Nickolas Gordon, Father, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Volz, Lt. Col. Thomas Geisinger, Drew F. Lawrence, Carter, Mother, Army Commercial

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

So we’re walking into this massive convention center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania called the Great American Outdoors show. It’s sponsored by the National Rifle Association and is billed as the biggest outdoors show in the world: there are thousands of people, thousands of booths selling all sorts of stuff. You have bird calls. You also have jerky.

 

Seller 

It’s not super spicy.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

And of course, lots of guns. Pretty much everything you need for the great outdoors. But why were we – Fire Watch, a military podcast – here? Well, somewhere stacked between a fishing expo and food court, is an Army recruiting booth. Since the COVID-19 pandemic four years ago, recruiting across the military services has been in crisis. Many recruiters lost access to schools that were shuttered. The military also has been increasingly the subject of political attacks – mainly from the right of the aisle condemning the services as “woke.” – we’ll get into that in the episode. My colleague, Steve Beynon – an Army veteran and Military.com’s Army reporter – and I wanted to see what it was like for recruiters on the ground floor. How do they recruit? Why were they at the Great American Outdoors show? Are the problems that gain so much traction in Washington the same ones that recruiters on the ground are experiencing? We talked to people who approached the recruiting booth and asked them why they were interested in the Army. Some of the answers were pretty par for the course, and others were a bit surprising –

 

Carter 

I’ve been waiting – sounds bad to say but my grandma, she’s 97. So kind of waiting for her to die but not really die, you know, to join.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

Because she’s worried about you?

 

Carter 

I just don’t want to be gone, man…I don’t want to be gone when that day comes.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence – it is Friday March 1st, and this is Fire Watch. Steve, welcome to Fire Watch. Before we hear from the recruiters and interested applicants we spoke to, paint us a picture of this Army recruiting booth, what was going on there?

 

Steve Beynon 

It’s set up in the middle of this convention, full of folks into guns, camping, archery – probably a decent venn diagram of folks into those things and possibly courtable to join the Army. They had a virtual shooting range with a modified M4 shooting at a screen, the same kind of target practice soldiers use. And they had all the gear out for deadlifting. Two very eye-catching attractions.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

And what did you notice about the people going up to the booth.

 

Steve Beynon 

Well, the entire convention was mostly white older men with their families. And that was the same for the people going up to the booth, though the demographic skewed a little younger there I’d say. But you had a lot of dads and moms bringing their kids up, or younger people going up to the booth on their own.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

And we talked to some of those families or some of those young people who are interested in the booth. Were you surprised to hear anything? Did anyone jump out at you?

 

Steve Beynon 

There were a few people that jumped out at me. And one thing I’ve heard from a few recruiters is that parents and potential applicants are concerned about safety, thinking that they’ll be immediately put into combat or something. And the DOD has some data on this too. And it’s one of the concerns of Gen Z. The audio is a little hard to hear. But one mother that spoke to us was talking to her son about those concerns. He brought up what happens if he gets sent to another country.

 

Son 

What if a war gets started and I go off to fight some war in another country at 20 before I turn 21?

 

Mother 

And the Lord’s on your side and we know where you’re gonna go if that happens…

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

It’s interesting, we spoke to a lot of parents. It seems like the Army is trying to tap into parents and community leaders as a way to reach potential applicants. What does that look like and has it been effective?

 

Steve Beynon 

It looks like reverting back to old-school types of advertisements. For example, the Army dug up its old “BE ALL YOU CAN BE” campaign and put it on cable – Gen. Z isn’t really watching cable. But their parents are. The Army can’t advertise, isn’t legally allowed to advertise on TikTok, the Chinese owned app Gen Z spends a lot of its time. And it has never really got a grasp of how to appeal to potential recruits in other places.

 

Army Commercial 

“Be All You Can Be”

 

Steve Beynon 

So that’s an example of what marketing looks like. Now is it effective? Well the Army hasn’t hit its recruiting goals in over three years now, so it would be hard to say whether those efforts have been effective. But specifically that return to “Be All You Can Be” is still new, so we’ll see. But this recruiting slump is going to probably need more than nostalgia messaging ads on cable TV. So did you talk to anyone about why it was important for the Army to be at an event like this? This specific recruiting unit comes here every year. They get about 100 leads a day, that’s people who give recruiters their contact information. To fill the quota, recruiters usually need 1-2 recruits per month. This is an extremely friendly crowd for the military. So the bang for buck is certainly here. Here’s Lt. Col. Thomas Geisinger, the battalion commander for the Harrisburg recruiting station.

 

Lt. Col. Thomas Geisinger 

The Great American Outdoor Show is one of the largest outdoor shows in the world, certainly the nation. So we have a market sub segment that is very patriotic, very supportive of the military, although here in Pennsylvania, they may not know their military … so what we have to do is we have to bridge the gap. So we have to reach out, be assertive. So you saw that with our recruiters. They didn’t just sit behind the table waiting for folks to walk up. What they did is they were circulating through the population with our uniform because it needs to be seen because they might not have seen in uniform in quite some time.

 

Steve Beynon 

As you heard him say, this subsection of the population is and always has been an important demographic to recruit from. You have a lot of parents who served, you have a lot of general patriotism. So people here are arguably more likely to be predisposed to joining the military than anywhere else, despite some arguments originating from Washington and partisan media.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

Yeah, it’s interesting that you mentioned that. And I think this would be a good place to talk about it. Because one of the things that we’ve seen in the last few years, are political attacks on the military, particularly from the right.

 

Sen. Tom Cotton 

…if troops are subjected to the kinds of trainings drawing on critical race concepts like America, and our military is inherently racist…given what you’ve said, should they report it up their chain of command or to the inspector general or to other appropriate channels?

 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin 

They’ve always had…Yes, they should. They’ve always had that ability to do that. And I would recommend that in the future. I would also say that diversity, equity and inclusion is important to this military now and it will be important in the future.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

So that was Senator Tom Cotton, an Army veteran and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, going back and forth in 2021. Steve was this kind of argument something you heard at the convention, which we should also mention, again, was sponsored by the NRA. So it’s definitely a conservative affair here.

 

Steve Beynon 

No we did not hear about “wokism.” This is one of those things that has undoubtedly made it into the mainstream – it’s not just inside the beltway. You’ve seen conservative support for the military dwindle in the last few years, something we haven’t seen in decades. It’s also something that senior planners in the Army are very sensitive about. Those “woke” criticisms of the military largely center around its diversity policies and efforts. But on the ground, firmly away from Washington and in an very friendly audience to the military – you know, people coming up interested in the booth probably don’t think the military is woke – we didn’t hear that at all. In fact, most parents and young people we spoke to were interested in the Army for reasons that people have been interested in since the modern volunteer military – job security, education benefits and a sense of purpose.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

What’s the biggest thing for you as your kids are looking at the Army?

 

Terri 

Opportunity, service, honor, experience, giving back to your country — I just see it as an all around, well rounded and investment.

 

Steve Beynon 

What brought you to like the shooting range?

 

Father 

Oh just the fact that it was Army, he’s been interested in joining army since he’s been a little kid.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

And I am assuming you’re his dad, his father? So how do you feel about you know, you know, your son being interested in joining the military?

 

Father 

Oh, I think it’s great.

 

Son 

I want to join I want to take ranger school, Army Rangers and see if I can do like infantry.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

One of the things that surprised me a bit was hearing how the Army is actually looking to recruit those in maybe older brackets of the demographic. As the recruiters told us, the Army is looking at 17-34 year-olds. But they also said that they’re trying to tap into more of that middle-space, applicants who may have some civilian experience first. Why is that?

 

Steve Beynon 

We spoke to a guy named Carter, he’s 24, has been working in construction since he graduated high school. You heard him at the top of the show talking about his grandmother – family is important to him. But he spoke to the recruiters for a long time and actually put his name in to be contacted again.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

Do you think that’s gonna be a benefit to you? Like what have you learned in the civilian world that’s going to take you into the Army world?

 

Carter 

Maturity, maturity level, just understanding how the world works. I mean, I’ve lived on my own since I was 18. So I know that you don’t just go to school, come home and have food made and you know, live life, you actually got to pay your bills, make sure you’re on top of everything and enjoy the stress.

 

Steve Beynon 

The Army wants new recruits who might be a bit more mature, have some life experience – and maybe even some other skills. It’s really into this idea of soldier’s having skills outside their military job. Like construction, or writing, coding welding, martial arts. They want folks to come in that are more well-rounded. And for some people, maybe they got into a career that wasn’t for them. The Army can be a second chance. Here’s Lt. Col. Geisinger again

 

Lt. Col. Thomas Geisinger

So widening the traditional recruiting focus from the high school market exclusively to some college in the labor market. That’s an important shift in American society that we’ve seen and we’re moving to match it.

 

Steve Beynon 

One of the recruiters we spoke to, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Volz embodies that demographic. He’s a new recruiter and infantryman who used to work as a loan officer for years.

 

Staff Sgt. Jonathan Volz 

So I can say for myself, personally. So I left school for the job, I was just chasing dollar amounts, you know, I just wanted as much money as I could make. And once I started making a significant amount of money at a young age, I thought that would be everything I wanted, and I was really unhappy, like I was not meant to be inside, behind the desk, on the computer screen. You know, I toughed it out for about six years. And then I just cracked. I always knew the military was an option deep down in my brain. But once I hit a wall of like, I can’t keep coming to work like this and working this hard and not being, not feeling happy. I talked to a recruiter.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

Does targeting this demographic have anything to do with the shortfall the military has been seeing in recruiting over the last five or so years?

 

Steve Beynon 

So you’re right, all branches have been struggling to meet their end mission for recruiting. Frankly, all the branches are simply struggling with finding high school students or recent grad who are eligible to serve. There’s an obesity epidemic in this country, ¼ of prime military-age Americans are obese and most are overweight. Many can’t pass the academic entrance exam, let alone score high enough for key roles. Plus, a new system called MHS Genesis, which basically processes applicants into the military medically, has made it difficult. Here’s Gesinger again.

 

Lt. Col. Thomas Geisinger 

The Department of Defense’s shift to the MHS Genesis System has in fact lengthened the time it takes to join the military. That has posed some difficulties for our recruiters and working through that process. However, I will say that the DOD and USAREC have been proactive in getting after the problem to get what we call the flash to bang, applicant processing timeline back down closer to the historical.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

So Steve, take me back to the booth for a minute. How were the recruiters pitching the Army? Because at the end of the day, that’s really where people get roped into the service. What were some of the conversations you were hearing or interactions you were seeing?

 

Steve Beynon 

Some hung around and looked like they were thinking about testing out the electronic shooting range or trying out the deadlift challenge they had going. And while they were thinking, you had recruiters come up to them and just start asking them questions. We talked to Sergeant First Class Nickolas Gordon about this, I don’t know, “dance” that happens at the recruiting booth. Here’s what he said.

 

Sgt. First Class Nickolas Gordon 

I’m looking for the ones that actually make eye contact with me because I found that they have a question. They just don’t want to ask you right away. So those are the ones once I lock eyes, then I move on to talk to them. And it’s not an aggressive talk. It’s a ‘hey, I see you have questions, what’s going on?’ Then they kind of laugh… So honestly, to say it’s somewhat not about pitching the Army, it’s about getting to know the person themselves. Each person is different. They might be here for just wanting to see the world, they might be here for college. So for me, what I do on my personal phone, once I get them in is I find out what their hobbies are. That way, it helps me figure out what kind of job line they’re looking for. If someone’s really into working with their hands, I’m going to try to help them find that mechanical field. And or if they’re really, you know, want that medical field, we would go into that route from there. So it’s definitely looking to find out what they’re interested in what they want to do for the career path.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

So Steve, the demographic might be slightly different, but the fundamentals here for how the Army is trying to recruit – creating trust between recruiters and interested prospects and pitching career and patriotism – is that really any different than it has been in the past?

 

Steve Beynon 

I think it’s the same back and forth, the same approach that military recruiters have used for years. And that’s telling in its own way. Despite the noise about politicization in the military, people’s interests and worries haven’t really changed. Recruiting is still about helping somebody see how military service can allow them to fulfill their aspirations, whether that’s a vision of their commitment to the country or their careers.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

And yet, the branches are still struggling. So is it actually working?

 

Steve Beynon 

If you look at the past few years, it hasn’t worked. But if you look at this year, next year — it remains to be seen.

 

Drew F. Lawrence 

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Fire Watch. Thank you to Army reporter Steve Beynon and our guests. Thanks also to executive producer Zachary Fryer-Biggs. If you liked this episode and want to let us know, give us a rating – wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

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